Home 2017 Races The Democratic Party in Virginia: One Big, Fat, Crazy Family

The Democratic Party in Virginia: One Big, Fat, Crazy Family


Throughout last year, grassroots groups expressed frustration at how “the Party” handled the elections, their strategy, the tools they chose, how they interacted with the grassroots, and a host of other issues. After the election, many activists said that the great results were in spite of the party, not because of it.

This past Sunday, Chris Bolling, Executive Director of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA) came to speak at the NoVA Grassroots Coalition meeting (a monthly meeting of leaders of various grassroots organizations), and one of the first things Bolling tried to do was to clarify that people expressing anger at “the Party” needed to understand who they were talking about, since that encompasses many distinct levels that operate mostly independently of one another. For example, he explained that if you thought “the Party” should have supported more candidates or tougher races, or divided the money among candidates in a different way, those were all decisions made by the House Democratic Caucus, not DPVA.

Bolling then went on to describe in greater detail the five layers that make up what we think of as “the Party”:

  • The national party groups. This includes DGA (Democratic Governors Association), DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), DLCC (Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee), DAGA (Democratic Attorney Generals Association), who respectively work exclusively at the national level on campaigns for governors, Congressional races, legislative races, and Attorneys General. And the DNC (Democratic National Committee), which sets the party platform, and coordinates state and local parties. The DCCC is fairly well funded, but the other national groups are often underfunded or even in debt.
  • The state top campaigns. In 2017, that was mainly the Northam for Governor campaign (plus the Fairfax for LG and Herring for AG campaigns). This year, it’s Sen. Tim Kaine’s reelection campaign. These campaigns raise their own money and operate autonomously, focusing on getting their candidates at the top of the ticket elected.
  • The Coordinated campaign. This is a parallel-organization to the state top campaign, with leaders selected by the state top campaign and funding by the top campaign. The Coordinated’s job is to run the field campaigns up and down the ticket.
  • The Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). DPVA is the “support” arm of the state party. They provide data and support services, run the VAN, and assist local committees. They do their own fundraising, and spend those funds on their own staff and functions, as well as contributing some to the other levels of the party.
  • The House/Senate Caucuses. They work to elect and re-elect Delegates and Senators. They do their own fundraising, and operate autonomously.

What Bolling explained about each of these groups is that they can vary in terms of how conservative they are in campaign strategies, in willingness to work with grassroots organizers, willingness to use the latest technologies and social media, etc. For example, Tim Kaine’s campaign is expected to be quite progressive in that sense, far more so than Ralph Northam’s was, or Mark Warner’s will be.

Ultimately, although the levels communicate back and forth with one another, Bolling said, each one operates independently and autonomously. It’s a tenuous relationship. So, DPVA doesn’t tell the House Democratic Caucus how to run their Delegate campaigns, and the House or Senate Caucus doesn’t tell the gubernatorial campaign what to do.

They are also quite likely to have different strategies from one another, as in the case of a gubernatorial campaign and the House campaigns. The main thing each one considers is who their target voters are, and how to reach those target voters specifically. And even though Democratic candidates might be running in the same election cycle as one another, they might not have the same targets, and certainly the targets change from year to year.

For example, in 2017, Northam obviously needed to turn out voters in Northern Virginia and Richmond–where Democrats also expected to pick up Delegate seats–but because he had strong support in Hampton Roads, where Democrats don’t always pick up a lot of votes, his campaign shifted some resources towards working to reach voters in that area more. That didn’t necessarily mean, though, that the House Caucus wanted to shift their money or energy towards those House races.

Bolling was asked multiple ways about the role of the grassroots. In fact, a few people noted that he didn’t actually mention the grassroots until someone specifically brought it up. I think although he showed up, which is a first step for sure, he still hasn’t quite begun to think about where the grassroots activists fit into the picture. He said repeatedly that the party was caught off guard by the size of the blue wave, and hadn’t really strategized with such a large force in mind, but that he did not expect them to make that mistake again. Yet, if he isn’t thinking about ways to tap into and corral the energy of the grassroots activists, it doesn’t seem clear that they won’t be surprised again. And at the same time, if the grassroots activists don’t figure out how to communicate with and trust the party and its leaders somewhat, we risk missing out on the kinds of synergies we might develop.

You know the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Sometimes I think Democrats are the Portokalos family–everyone talking on top of one another, kinda loud, kinda crazy, sometimes fighting, but all really passionate, warm and welcoming. And the Republicans are the quiet, Protestant, Miller family, sitting in near silence at a big half-empty candlelit table.

  • A_Siegel

    Thank you for a cogent discussion of Bolling’s comments.

    A small clarification, Bolling repeatedly said things along the lines of “no one saw the coming wave” (not that the Party organizations didn’t see the potential, that no one saw it) … which was counter to what many in the room saw as possible a year ago and used to guide their efforts to engage/support House of Delegates’ candidates. And, there were multiple Virginia political observers/analysts (including BV’s Lowell Feld) who wrote publicly about the opportunity to win the House.

    • Yep, Ben Tribbett specifically raised the possibility that Ralph would win big. I then did an analysis of what could happen with the House races, concluding that we could pick up all or most of the Clinton districts held by Republicans. The wise people at a certain statewide campaign basically said we were idiots, that no way Ralph would win by more than 3 points, blah blah. Obviously, they were wildly wrong…while Ben and I pretty much nailed it. Hmmm.

      • A_Siegel

        Let’s be clear re that (very) senior staff person — he said (firmly in dismissing the potential for a blow-out/major Democratic Party win) that ‘this will end up as a race within 2-3 points, either way …” E.g., seemingly promoting it as a 50/50 chance for a close Northam win or a close Gillespie win. He explained that this was simply “The Virginia Way” and that the national mood was pretty much irrelevant for the election outcome.

        • Yep, these folks were totally wrong. The question is whether it dampened down enthusiasm and possibly hurt Ralph’s final numbers. If so, did it also hurt our chances of taking back the House? All we needed was one more vote with Shelly Simonds, after all, and not many more votes with Joshua Cole and Donte Tanner…

          • Ken Wheeler

            I definitely think being slow on the uptake for grassroots groups hurt us in HD40. We nned to expand the progressive vote targets, early, every year. Now is prime time for voter awareness and out reach, so that in the late summer/fall we have expanded the universe of voters we are fighting for.

    • Cindy

      Thanks for clarifying, good point. I won’t pretend I had any clue how big we would win. I just operated all year on the assumption that we had to claw and scratch and act as if we were underdogs. (Note that that didn’t end up meaning for me personally that I took a conservative approach to where to put my efforts.)

  • notjohnsmosby

    The self-defined grassroots groups don’t fit into the Democratic structure because they’re largely made up of newcomers who will mostly drift away when Trump leaves office. They’re not going to be around for the long haul.

    How do I know this? Because they haven’t been around for the long haul in the past, and while Trump is bad, Republicans in general have been bad since 1994. People who have been fighting the Cuccinellis and Obenshains, and Allens and Cantors and McConnells for decades aren’t going to be too impressed with someone who decided 16 months ago that he or she will be the expert on how to do things.

    • A_Siegel

      1. Some share of those people you are attacking have been knocking on doors for election after election and otherwise involved in the political process … thus, many have been for long haul.
      2. What a way to contribute to turning off (potential, actual) allies and otherwise contribute to undermining discussion to enable collaboration where/when possible.
      3. The 1994 date, of course, is interesting because it is not hard to thread the needle from Goldwater (three decades earlier) (and even earlier) to the GOP today. And, going back to [1], some share of those in the room have had roles in elections dating back (nearly to) Goldwater.
      4. And, well, “grassroots” shouldn’t – imo — “fit into the Democratic structure” because they aren’t Party even if they are people / groups who are swimming in the same (general) direction. While supporting / fighting for ‘Blue Wave’, a grass roots group might be quite issue specific which might mean going all out for a specific candidate or two (focused efforts) due that issue focus rather than the need to focus on “Party”.
      5. Btw, are you asserting that grassroots’ organizations/energy had no role in helping get to 49?

      • Cindy

        I think the grassroots should probably never completely be subsumed by the party and it’s structure for sure. But we should definitely have strong channels of communication, and we should take advantage of opportunities to share resources and help each other when we can. And above all, we should make sure we aren’t unintentionally undermining each other’s efforts when we’re working towards a common goal.

      • notjohnsmosby

        I don’t believe the grassroots group nor the Democratic Party had a great deal to do with the gains in 2017. It was a wave year – everyone did way better than they normally would have, even candidates who received no help and/or lost.

        Trump did all of the work last year. That will most likely be the case the next three years as well. He’s raised all of the money for us, he’s brought candidates out of the woodwork, he’s fired up Democratic voters.

    • Cindy

      I sort of agree. There were a whole lot of people (myself included) who suddenly realized we’d been shirking our civic duty, thinking voting was enough. And I totally get why the party (at whatever level) wouldn’t want to invest a ton of time and energy into figuring out how to work with us, not knowing whether this energy would peter out (which it still may). I wish they had found ways to take advantage of the energy though, even as a temporary workforce, with an eye towards investing in the future and trying to keep the energy from being temporary. It’s a weird situation though—companies make these decisions all the time, whether to push the workers they have to work overtime, or to hire and train new workers. I’m still hopeful that a large number of us will stick with it, and that we’ll find those synergies where they exist.

      • Ken Wheeler

        Cindy, I share your story of ‘waking up”. I think the place to make this lash up happen is at the local level, and it has to come with an idea that grassroots groups bring more than bodies, to the fight. Plus, we have to have fun. I disagree that energy is dissipating, at least right now. With grassroots help, we knocked 850 doors in Fairfax last weekend, in the snow. The key, give people things to do, that are useful, when they are ready to do something. The worst thing the party did last year, was tell all the grassroots groups, from outside VA, wait until after the primary. The party has to get away from the “tyranny of the campaign” and at least locally focus on building community and sustained action.

        • Cindy

          Agree that there hasn’t been much sign of the energy dissipating. Hopefully it’s not Trump-driven, because that’s more short-natured probably. You know how psychologists tell repeat something every day for three weeks and then you’ve created a new habit? I’m hoping this sticks like that, as our new normal.

      • Kenneth Ferland

        As someone who has gotten into the local dem committee recently I always try to show deference towards those that were here first, particularly because I only moved here recently while most of the rest have lived their whole lives here. I advocate for the direction I want but when their is disagreement I defer and work on other areas where we do have agreement and this builds trust. Showing up consistently at every monthly meeting and completing tasks you say you will is a huge part of being viewed as reliable. And it is natural for folks to weigh advise from people/institutions based on their reliability.

        • notjohnsmosby

          Exactly, and it takes very little time to become reliable. There is plenty of deadweight in every committee, people who have been there for decades but are completely useless in getting anything done.

          As a side note, and lot of older Democrats do not believe in a meritocracy – at all. They believe that seniority is the only metric to be used to determine who’s in charge of things. I don’t believe in that, but I do believe that you need to enter the party as you would any other social or work group that you join. A lot of the new guys have more or less barged in with the attitude that “you are all worthless and doing everything wrong and I’m here to straighten you out”.

    • C Pruett

      How many election cycles does the party need people to promise to stick around for until it decides to alliw them to perform uncompensated labor? I don’t get this idea at all.

      • notjohnsmosby

        There are elections every November in Virginia, so more than one would be a nice starting point.

        • C Pruett

          Well people worked their butts off last year, are continuing to do so this year, and already planning for 2019. As a member of a,party committee that had a very successful 2017 i can tell you that one,of the big conversations we are having is about how much heavy lifting the grassroots did last year + how to continue + improve the synergy for the next two cycles and beyond. The idea that Trump did all the work, or that it will dry up when Trump goes away, is incredibly insulting and denies the reality on the ground.

          • notjohnsmosby

            If you want to make yourself feel better, than great. Myself, I’ve been at this since the 80s and have seen waves on both sides. No one group has much impact in getting a wave started or in keeping them rolling.

            They all follow the same pattern, which is very good for Democrats for the next few years.

          • C Pruett

            Well it’s a good thing our goal is to get things done in the immediate future and not to impress you. Good talk, very constructive.

    • Even if there’s some truth here (e.g., activists coming and going), this is basically the polar opposite of the attitude party people should have at this point. Instead, party folks should be welcoming grassroots activists with open arms, working to integrate them into the party where appropriate, working together wherever possible, and encouraging them to stick with it for the long haul. By the way, I say this as someone who got involved back in 2005 and saw/experienced this similar attitude by at least some party folks, but stuck with it and am still here in 2018…

      • C Pruett

        I was just told today that I take this stuff too personally so I should probably let it go (BUT i won’t). I generally hate the whole ‘obviously no one was working because they didn’t canvass my neighborhood’ viewpoint but I have been reflecting my own experience in light of the whole ‘where were the grassroots before 2017’ narrative. (And generally speaking I’m more on the party/candidate side of things than what I’d think of as more broadly grassroots, but still. . .)

        I’ve lived in Virginia my entire life and my current locality since 2006; I’ve voted in every election since 1998 and every Democratic primary since at least 2004. I donated money to Dem candidates and liberal-leaning nonprofits — not huge amounts but noticeable amounts — at least since MoveOn became a thing in 2004. In the dark pre-2016 days I got a lot of form emails but nothing that I would count as outreach from a Democratic congressional candidate or General Assembly candidate (in the case of HoD, we never had any) much less the state or local party.

        Literally the only group that ever contacted me and said “Hey do you want to get involved in votes and policy on the state level” was NARAL-ProChoice VA. (I attended some educational events and wrote my state legislators because of their efforts; they invited me to some marches and I briefly considered going, which is actually a big deal because I *still* don’t go to marches).

        Other than that: 1. At some point my my Tim Kaine for governor emails flipped over to Mark Warner for Senate; 2. I got contacted about Tim Kaine’s 2012 Senate campaign via *Tom Perriello’s email list* from back when I gave to his 2010 Congressional campaign + got invited to some kind of listening session that Tom was running in his capacity at CAP (i didn’t go because I was dumb but I appreciated the gesture when they reached out to recruit me 5 years later); 3. Mark Herring did a good job of getting my 2013 primary vote via facebook ads 4. local Dem candidates for Board of Supervisors and Commonwealth attorney contacted me via doors and/or phone calls.

        The first campaign that reached out to recruit me to volunteer was Hillary 2016 (and I volunteered pretty nonstop from September to November including working as a poll observer). I still didn’t really have an idea where ‘the party’ fit into all this structure until after the November 2016 election when I responded to a Facebook invite to a local party event and I’m guessing the reason I saw that was that I had joined Pantsuit Nation or one of the ‘grassroots’ Facebook groups and somebody from the party was smart enough to advertise it there.

        Not to go on forever about myself (too late) but the point is that I’m someone who was relatively engaged and paying attention and it took November 2017 to hook me up with the local party because it was the first time I had a real experience of being asked to participate and knowing I could.

        Tl;dr don’t write people off because they haven’t been around forever.

        • Cindy

          I guess you’re right. On the one hand, I blame myself/feel guilt for not having joined my local committee (or any of the local committees in the places I lived previously) until this year, but also…um, I wouldn’t have known how. I’ve never heard from any of them either. Shouldn’t someone be actively recruiting people to join somehow? (I also want to mention that despite being kinda active in the primaries last year, and donating a bunch of times to a bunch of candidates, I was never contacted once to volunteer for top of the ticket races.)

          • C Pruett

            I’m not trying to fault anyone with any of the organizations. . . I think what we’ve seen is a convergence of a lot of factors. At least in my paft of the state, the party has been stepping up recruitment and outreach AND we’ve got a lot of people coming to the party because of Trump.

  • RobertColgan
  • Ken Wheeler

    As someone who started out on parallel paths this year, with the Women’s March, to Indivisible, and Swing Left, while also joining the Fairfax Dems, I am very interested in this synergy. I bucket the grassroots into three categories : Issue focused advocacy such as Moms Demand, NARAL etc. Another grouping are the “Pressure Groups” focused on holding electeds accountable, and attempting to force change, or stop bad legislation. Indivisible might be the preeminent group in this category, but there are others. The last group are very focused on electioneering. WeOfAction in Arlington, Dems to Go, VA Democracy Forward, and Swing Left are all about supporting Democratic Candidates.

    It is harnessing the energy and talents of this last category of groups that presents the best opportunity for the Dem Party. I would argue that the lash up point, that makes the most sense, is at the County and Congressional District committee level. Here in Fairfax, there was a big push this year to make sure as many Grassroots groups as possible had at least some people join FCDC. And we elected a slate of leadership that understood that the Dem Party does not have a monopoly on progressive electioneering.

    The party provides basic infrastructure, voter lists, training, Election Law support, voter assistance on election day, Registration and Voter Education materials and training, etc. The grassroots groups provide energy, ideas, volunteer leadership, and engagement. I think of the party as the waterpipe, and the grassroots groups as the water. To be effective, we need both. And since grassroots groups, and local party committees live and work in the same place, and are both volunteer groups, this seems like the natural level to build that coordination. We have a very robust grassroots group/local party (LCDC/FCDC/VA10CD) effort to identify unknown voters for party lean in our local voter DB’s (BlueWaveVA10). This is going to be a model of how the various grassroots groups, and the party can coordinate, effectively, to pursue their mutual goals.

  • Kenneth Ferland

    I’ve always felt that the DNC is too focused on the Presidency and dose a poor job as an overall umbrella for the Democratic party.

    I would put the Presidential nomination and campaign responsibilities under a separate organization, call it DPC. The sitting president may appoint the whole board of this organization, with an alternative method in other times.

    But the DNC chair should be selected by a panel of all the other committees with the DPC being just one of them, and the DNC would use this same method all the time giving it a consistent perspective of serving all the sub-committees goals all the time. The DNC should ONLY act to raise and redistribute money and to create the party platform.

    As it stands now we lurch violently between different presidential/legislative focus due to the way we pick leadership, contrast that with Republicans who maintain a more balanced division of resources and have won offices broadly as a result.

  • Southern Liberal

    This sums up the Democratic party for me: https://washingtonmonthly.com/2018/03/20/if-a-blue-wave-materializes-be-prepared-for-a-big-tent-democratic-party/

    I’ve always known it to be a big tent party.